For more than a decade, music fans have gathered at the Junebug Boogie Ranch in Cookeville, Tennessee for the Muddy Roots Festival. An aggressively DIY event, Muddy Roots celebrates Punk, Roots, Metal, Folk, and just about everything in between.
Apart from the unusual combination of musical acts, Muddy has a few other characteristics about it that set it apart. Free camping is the big one. The venue is a large sloping field surrounded by trees. I don’t know how many people attended this year – maybe one thousand – but there was plenty of room to set up a tent and a fire pit, or a marquee and an RV. First come, first served; camp anywhere you like. To sweeten the deal, they also have free hot showers. I do not know of any other festival that does this. Given the relatively low ticket price in the first place, free lodging at the campsite makes Muddy Roots one of the best deals for fans in the country.
Along with the free camping, you can come and go as you please between the camping areas and the event space. You can even leave the grounds and return whenever you like – the gates are open twenty-four hours a day. You can bring in your own food and alcohol … try doing that at any other festival. There are several vendors on site so you can buy chow and drinks, and the prices are the lowest I have seen anywhere, especially for beer, soft drinks, and water.
There were three stages at the festival this year. The main stage is called the Wood Stage, and it is at the bottom of a sloping main (gravel) street that where everything happens. It is an open stage with a shed roof and good views from all angles. The smallest stage is in the Little Tent, and then there is the middle ground of the Big Tent a little bit farther along. These tents are open-sided, and they allow you to get out of the direct sun and rain while listening to the music.
The main reason I wanted to go to Muddy Roots was to see Monolord. I had seen them at Black Circle in Indianapolis a few months back, and then again at Psycho Las Vegas a couple weeks before Muddy Roots. Unfortunately, they dropped out of the festival a few days prior to start time. Over the past couple of years, I have almost gotten used to the last-minute line-up shifts, what with the pandemic and all, but this one was a killer. I nearly changed plans and went to Rocklahoma instead, but in the end I decided to head to Cookeville anyway.
The first day of the festival was Friday (not counting the preshow the night before), and it was a hot one, with the temperature over ninety degrees and the humidity at 80-90%. Bloody hell. At least the sky was overcast for the most part so the direct sun wasn’t boring directly into your brainpan all day. And besides, any day it is not raining at a festival is a good day.
The big news was that Fear played the entire Record album live to the general approval of the crowd. Punk and hardcore fans were pretty fired up about it, and I’m in that crowd. It was great to see Lee Ving doing his thing 45 years on. Doyle was another highlight, putting on the midnight show in the Big Tent. Alex “Wolfman” Story is wearing a knit mask these days and Doyle was his usual self. Great set.
It was a good day. The guitar player for Moru flipped me off, I witnessed Black Tarpoon feature a musician playing a washboard with a couple of spoons, and I got the stinkeye from Doyle, himself, for taking a photo of him before he got on stage. Don’t worry, man, I won’t publish that one.
Day two wasn’t as hot, but it was just as humid. I am not sure how much I can sweat in a single day, but I was testing the limits this weekend. Nevermind that, there were four bands I had never seen before that were absolutely fantastic: Hookers, Whores, Black Cobra, and IV & The Strange Band. Black Cobra is a two-man band and they put me immediately in mind of Healing Magic for that reason. Guitar and drums and you don’t even notice there is no bass. Incredible. IV & The Strange Band (led by the son of Hank III, ergo IV) is a dark roots-like band that has a lane all their own, and Whores brought a tantalizing Psychobilly hard-edged rock and roll vibe to the late-night crowd.
The Hookers set was completely mesmerizing. It opened with an oration from a mild-mannered-looking older lady who stood alone and read a story about how the devil is real. And then the band burst onto the stage, fronted by a white-suit-wearing singer who could have been mistaken for an evangelist and backed by a druid, a bass player dressed like a strumpet (sorry, that’s the most apt description), a ghoul, and a regular-looking dude on drums. It was absolutely wild. At the end of the set, the singer reminded us that, as we leave the venue, we should think about the devil.
Day two also brought the rain. The lightning was really kicking up about the time the Hookers went on stage at nine o’clock. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to an outdoor festival before, but usually, when there is lightning, they shut things down and evacuate until it stops. I’m not a meteorologist so I don’t know how to tell when the lightning is dangerous, but it was pretty regular and pronounced, to my eyes, anyway. Heavy rainfall came next. I sought shelter in the Little Tent where no band was playing and watched the water rise in pools on the grounds and rivulets build in the paths. And the lightning, too. I watched the lightning. Goddamn Gallows was scheduled for the Wood Stage at ten – recall, that’s the one with no cover for the fans and not much for the musicians, either. I didn’t go down there, but it appeared that they delayed their set for a while. They did play, in the pouring rain, and fans stood out in it to hear them. I remained in the tent and then went over to the Big Tent for see the Whores’ set. I really wanted to see the Goddamn Gallows, but the conditions were unreasonable, for me at least.
It was still raining (but not very hard) when I walked down to the wood stage a few minutes before midnight. I asked the guy running the soundboard if Heavy Temple was going on as scheduled, and he didn’t know. He said it was up to the promoter and the stage manager. True enough, but I couldn’t find either one of them. Heavy Temple had always been on the roster, but they got bumped up to the Monolord slot on the Wood Stage at the last minute. The lightning was still flashing and the rain kept coming so, with no more information available, I took my soggy self back to the hotel (I was not camping on site). There was a flash flood warning by then for the area, more heavy rain predicted. The flood warning turned into a flood watch by Sunday, and heavy rain still predicted for Sunday in the day and Sunday night. Some communication from the organizers would have been good, but none reached me. You just have to kind of wander around and see for yourself what is going on and then make your own decisions. As far as I know, there was a little wind damage but nothing terrible happened.
Day three dawned with rain, a continued flood watch, and the prospect of more rain. The Sunday headliner was Stöner, who I have seen before, but I had never heard of all but one of the other bands on the schedule. That is an opportunity, isn’t it. When I got to the ranch I was surprised to find that it looked intact. It was wet in places, and really muddy in a few patches, but truly the grounds were in good shape even with all the rain that had fallen. And despite all the weather predictions for Sunday, it was overcast but the skies kept the dampness to themselves.
Two bands particularly pinned my ears back on Sunday: Munly & The Lupercalians and Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. The former is hard to describe whereas the latter is a dark gothic roots act. On their Bandcamp page, Slim Cessna describes their music thusly, “Slim Cessna’s Auto Club started in 1992 in Denver, CO. Their music documents a dark and weird goth-country punk America, bridging the gap between Hank Williams and the Misfits.” There is no way I could have said that better. Munly & The Lupercalians, on the other hand, are a kind of ritual folk music – described this way in the Wiki depths of the internet … “The goal [of the project] is to produce a multi-album set tentatively titled The Kinnery Of Lupercalia, which is all about the town and its colorful residents. Its residents have been described as ‘families who interact with each other’ and Lupercalia as an ‘imagined community of Legions & clans where we are not sure who is a deity and who is not.” You don’t need to know that when you see them perform, but this knowledge does shade the music in a particular way. And by the way, Jay Munly is a driving force in both these bands. I didn’t know that going in so I did a double take seeing him a second time. He cuts a striking and memorable profile and still I sometimes wonder if I was seeing things.
HR of Bad Brains stood on the stage and imparted wisdom to the crowd. His performance leaned toward the reggae while I was at the stage and it was something very different from the rest of the music at the festival; entirely welcome and entrancing. The headliner Stöner was up to their usual standard, playing rugged riffs and drawing the strings toward close for the festival with stoner goodness. I saw a few Kyuss shirts in the crowd so the remaining festival goers were peopled in part by fellow Stöner fans. It was the perfect nightcap for me.
This was my first trip to Muddy Roots, and I won’t be going back – this once will do me. Muddy offers an eclectic blend of music and people, adding up to a unique music festival in the humid hills of middle Tennessee. It is worth going at least one time and, if you don’t live too far away, it is one of the best deals in music festivals you can find anywhere.
WORDS AND PHOTOS WAYNE EDWARDS